With John Terry’s retirement from International football recently, how are England looking at the heart of their defence? Do they have the players to replace Terry, will he be a massive loss, or is his unavailability for Roy Hodgson’s lineup a blessing?Before we look at the different individual options available to Hodgson, it’s important to look at the type of tactics he usually uses, and what type of defender suits those tactics best. Firstly, Hodgson likes his teams to defend deep, with little space in behind for opponents to exploit. He also likes his two wide players to do their fair share of defending, which means the two fullbacks generally play narrow. This invites pressure and draws the opposition out, which opens up counter attacking opportunities. It also means that his defence will face a lot of crosses. Hodgson is comfortable with this approach, as it means his sides have a very good shape, his two central midfielders close off passing angles extremely well, and the play of the opponents is all filtered in to wide positions. However, this means that the central defenders he picks, need to be good at defending crosses aerially,and in terms of the positions they take up in the box, as well as their body shape. It also means that opponents will have time on the ball in front of the back four, which invited shots from range. This requires central defenders (and central midfielders) who are brave and willing to block shots. Hodgson favours these tactics because he feels that long range shots and crosses are not a particularly effective way for opponents to attack. He protects the central areas and cedes the wide areas.
When looking at the options at Hodgson’s disposal, I will also look at their compatibility with their possible partner, and their suitability to the tactics.
The current batch:
Joleon Lescott, Phil Jagielka and Gary Cahill are the current CB’s in the reckoning for a starting position. Stylistically, all three suit Hodgson’s tactics very well. Lescott and Jagielka started the recent qualifier against Ukraine (Terry was injured, and Cahill was on the bench) and it appeared a lot of stock was placed in their familiarity with each other from their days together at Everton. Of course, it’s important to remember that Lescott spent a significant portion of his Everton career playing at left back, so they were not always partnered together. In general though, they have done very well as a pair, especially in a 1-0 victory over Spain, where both had outstanding games in a very defensive set-up. It’s difficult to attach too much importance to that game, though, as it was a friendly where England could use 6 substitutes to freshen up the entire midfield protection in front of the defence. It’s also worth pointing out that whilst a large section of the media have advocated for Jagielka and Lescott to be preferred to Terry since the 2010 World Cup because they are young and quick, both players are already 30, whilst Terry is still just 31. It’s also an issue that neither is particularly quick, and Lescott’s technical abilities are below the standard of his competition. At times during Euro 2012, Lescott treated the ball like a grenade. As for Cahill, the Chelsea man is exceptionally quick, excellent technically, and is only 26. One issue Hodgson will need to consider though, is that Lescott and Cahill both face tough competition at club level. Neither player started their clubs’ crucial matchday one Champions League games, with Nastasic and Luiz preferred respectively. Both were also only amongst the substitutes for this weekend’s Premier League games. This must certainly be a worry for Lescott as he was also dropped for last season’s crucial Champions League game with Bayern Munich, and it’s possible that Roberto Mancini doesn’t trust the former Wolves man against top European opposition. Cahill, on the other hand, excelled against Barcelona and Bayern Munich last season. Jagielka has no Champions League experience.
Rio Ferdinand – still England’s best central defender?
No. Despite what the media may tell you, this is not the case. In fact, Ferdinand would struggle to make Manchester United’s best XI if both Smalling and Vidic could stay fit. More importantly, Rio is 34 in a month’s time, and whilst he has managed his injury problems very well in 2012 (with only one league game missed since January), a lot of this had to do with some shrewd management by Ferguson, who did not use him in every game. Whether his body could handle 2 qualifiers in 4 days, never mind a tournament, is debatable. His club manager certainly doesn’t think so. Sir Alex Ferguson told MUTV: “You play something like a game every four days. Rio Ferdinand couldn’t do that.” Most would consider Rio to be an old 34 (unlike Frank Lampard, who may be considered a “young” 34 year old), and there is little to no chance that he would be able to play at the 2014 World Cup in Brazil. As for the short term, Ferdinand is simply not suited to Hodgson’s tactics. He is not particularly strong in the air, and has never been a body-on-the-line type of defender. He has made defending look easy in his career, due to his outstanding pace and technical ability, but with his pace now completely gone, he has looked very susceptible in a deeper defensive line. The two games that come to mind are a battering he received from Demba Ba and Shola Ameobi in a 3-0 defeat to Newcastle last season, and this past weekend’s 3-2 home defeat to Tottenham, where he not only was destroyed for pace by Spurs’ attack, but was pulled all over the pitch by Defoe’s excellent movement. As worrying was a half hearted attempted tackle for Jan Vertonghen’s goal, and being completely outmuscled by Defoe on the right touchline for Clint Dempsey’s goal. In short, Rio is finished at the very top level. Need more evidence? Look at how Athletic Bilbao embarrassed United in last season’s Europa League.
Young Pretenders & Other Options:
An extremely promising young defender, who excelled on loan at Swansea last season, and has recently forced his way in to André Villas-Boas’ thinking at Tottenham. He is quick, reads the game well, and is an outstanding passer of the ball. He is everything Rio Ferdinand once was, though he is still far from the finished product. A regular place in the squad awaits, but several minutes in friendly matches is required to gain experience.
Phil Jones & Chris Smalling:
Both outstanding talents, and both shifted out to United’s problematic right back position last season. Both also started England games in that position, too. Right now, Smalling is the most developed as a central defender and once fit, will force Ferdinand to the bench at club level. He would most likely have gone to Euro 2012 had he been fit, and Roy Hodgson knows him well from working with him at Fulham. Jones is a fantastic prospect with an outstanding skill set and mentality, who has said in the past that he models his game on John Terry. In 2010 Jones said, “John Terry’s definitely someone I idolise – he’s a fantastic player and I’ve always looked up to him”. However, he is still very raw, and is currently best served using his athleticism at right back, or as a box-to-box midfielder. It will still be at least another 2 seasons before he is a realistic CB option for England. Once he is ready for that role, he may even mature in to a future England captain.
Amazingly, Dawson appeared to be Capello’s first choice backup to the Ferdinand-Terry combination at one point, but then strangely and suddenly lost favour with the Italian. He has spent a lot of his recent time on the sidelines with injury, and is only 5’th choice CB at Tottenham, as he doesn’t suit AVB’s high defensive line. What he does suit, however, is a deep defensive line, and the 28 year old is strong in the air, an organiser, and loves blocking shots. If he can get a move in January, he should come back in to the England reckoning.
Other options include Ryan Shawcross, Steven Taylor and possibly Micah Richards. Shawcross is limited technically but is an excellent defender aerially and at blocking shots, which I’ve mentioned already as being key traits of a Hodgson defender. Richards is more suited to right back in my opinion, as he is positionally suspect, and has not played regularly at CB for Manchester City for a number of years. Taylor is a strong, vocal defender who had an excellent first half of last season, and a call-up for him is not out of the question.
England will miss John Terry hugely, certainly in the short term. He is perfectly suited to Hodgson’s tactics, is the best organiser of a defence anywhere, and he is positionally superb. He also has the best post-war winning percentage of any England captain, and the lowest losing percentage. His displays at Euro 2012 were extremely good. In the past, England had a very strong pool of central defenders with Terry, Ferdinand, Sol Campbell, Ledley King and Jonathan Woodgate all around at the same time. That is not the case now. The best bet in the short term appears to be Lescott and Cahill, with Jagielka as fairly dependable cover. By the time Brazil 2014 comes around, my money is on a Cahill-Smalling partnership, with Caulker and Jones next in line. There will be no Rio in Rio de Janeiro, or even in San Marino later this month.